ashuramain01.jpgRan across this in today’s Washington Post online: “Bloody Ritual, Modern Meaning.” Check it out; it’s a short take on the passion of Imam Husain (a grandson of Prophet Muhammad) as observed and commemorated during the week of the tenth of Muharram. The Ashura festival, as it is also called, combines extensive liturgies and dramatic passion plays re-enacting Husain’s martyrdom at Karbala (in Iraq) at the hands of Umayyad caliphs from Damascus in 680 AD/CE, or in Islamic reckoning, 61 AH. The WashPost piece focuses on its ritual observance in Kabul.

Like most universal rites of commemoration, the Ashura practices vary from location to location, but there are always passion plays of the event, and there are always ritual displays of mourning for Husain, and it is this that studies and documentaries tend to highlight, condemn, and criticize as being offensive to modern sensibilities. The mourning rites involve symbolic mortification of the body, and the methods involve everything from rhythmic beating of the chest to serious flagellation using knives whipped over the back. Religion scholars have long noted the similarities of these types of practices to medieval Christian ritual processions of penance.

But such comparisons miss the point of Ashura. It is true that there are some similarities between the martyrdom of Jesus and the martyrdom of Husain, and both have come to have cosmic significance in Christian and Muslim (especially Shi’a Muslim) ethos and worldview. Both stories likewise served as identity markers and the memory of them are celebrated as foundational for the community memory. Still, the point is not the blood-letting in itself, but rather to protest an unjust death brought about by the injustice of spreading tyranny.

In the class I’m teaching on Holidays, one of the points we’re discussing now is the inherent and latent power of holidays to function in the service of the status quo AND to protest and challenge it. And in fact, when we dig deep enough to the narratives underlying many of our holidays, the story is, more often than not, a story that challenges power, and that in succeeding generations, that story is smothered over with re-interpretations to maintain the social order and try to minimize the potential that holidays have to upset the status quo of those in power. In other words, holidays and ritual celebrations in holidays are extremely dangerous, and the more visible the expression of this the ritual is, the greater the potential for the latent and suppressed power to challenge tyranny, empire, exploitation, consumption, and so on, is feared. It is for this reason that many holidays throughout history have been outlawed by governments or at least severely restricted and monitored (e.g., the Passover in the first century).

The WashPost article highlights this by electing to point out the Ashura observance in Kabul, which is one of the most bloody and violent locations for the annual commemoration of the 10th of Muharram. The effect is to stir up fear, and judging from the comments on the site by other readers, it seems to work. Unfortunately. Because Ashura and Muharram have a lot to teach those of us outside of Islam. Our Muslim brothers and sisters here provide us with an example analoguous to the passion of Jesus as a righteous act that symbolizes the rejection of the abuse of power and empire in a way that our (meaning, my own tradition of Christian) lame passion plays have totally lost. Understand, I don’t advocate self-flagellation with sharp instruments, as in Muslim practices of matam or medieval flagellant movements, any more than I advocate self-crucifixion as an acceptable imitation of Christ. Instead, I advocate recognizing the ability of our religious observance of holidays to challenge the abuses of imperialism, and I can think of no better public example of this than the rites of Ashura on the 10th of Muharram. It is a demonstration of a passion for justice. Prophetic justice.

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